It was all she could see behind the spotless, frosted glass. Thousands and thousands of gallons of treated water swished in strides against the inner seal. A lull of tranquility. A lie.
Because what roamed within those crystal, blue depths was far more frightening, far more terrifying than the fear of falling in and being suffocated by them.
Taken from her thoughts, Lara realized how close she had stepped near the tank. Her fingers, absently sliding in contrast to the glass wall, flinched away at the foreboding recognition.
Shifting when the feeling of apprehension filled her gut, her intuition wasn't wrong. Soon after, a powerful wave shook the tank, making the glass creak and cry. Snapping eyes in the direction of the disturbance, it must have been more centralized as the life up front still quietly swam. Nothing but branches, foliage, and water hastily swayed from what weight had caused the significant ripple.
She closed her eyes and breathed, bringing her hands up to instinctively readjust messy, brown hair back in its clasp. "I hate when he plays like this."
A slow, melodic rustling of what sounded like chains or wind chimes echoed towards her through the numbing, cold water.
He's tapping on a wall somewhere, or he just broke the shark cage again, the thought occurring sourly, her mouth fell into a resigned frown.
It had been three months since their newest addition was brought in. She hated remembering that day. The day she walked into the Marine Biology Center where she was temporarily volunteering to pure havoc. Only a few, short weeks since she had started, nothing could have prepared her for the conniption fit.
The yelling that met her ears in differing volumes, she shivered at the unearthed memory. Screams of 'help me!' or 'tighten the bolts on the net!' were all she could hear in the rise of voices. Men and women springing past her in pressured steps, some were frantic, some excited.
She had been beyond confused.
When she peered through the moving bodies and over by the whale enclosure, roughly twelve or thirteen people struggled to secure a wooden tub about the size of two adults. Her eyebrows crossing, from what she could gather, it had been filled to the top with darkened liquid that resembled water, and yet didn't. That wasn't what puzzled her most. No, it was the sweat drawn, muscle tensed faces of the men grappling around it.
With that all she could see granted her deficient height of barely over five feet, it was hell to be left out of the loop.
Then, among the ruckus, she saw it.
An enormous, emerald fin glistening with intricate designs slammed down over the side in a strong enough burst it fractured the wood; a feat to be marveled since this specific wood looked to be as thick as a four by four board. Whatever the thing was, it made sense why a dozen men had to contain it.
"Shit!" a man hissed in prevalent irritation and placed a rough hand on the tail. "When will the transfer net be ready?"
"They're bringing it, sir. They had to improvise it. The first wasn't too sturdy for this guy," a smaller man reassured, weariness written in ragged lines on his face.
"We're running short on time," the larger man gritted between clenched teeth. To emphasize his point, he placed his other hand down to settle the splashing up near the head of the tub.
"Everyone move back!" an additional man, also fastening the container, strained at the growing crowd of prying eyes.
With the chaos, Lara was content staying as far back as she was.
Of course, that was until someone had to pique her interest with their loud mouth. The rumbling of voices boisterous, she caught an ongoing conversation between a couple of co-workers.
The man standing to the distant right of her was the first to grunt his displeasure. "A fucking mermaid? Unbelievable," chin up, arms woven, he went on to express cynically.
"Mer-man." The woman next to him giggled. "I saw him."
He nasally snorted in reply. "Ridiculous. Neither exist."
The woman bit her lip and frowned. "Who knows. Either way, they'll be running tests on him as soon as he's contained."
Lara blanked out of their conversation after that.
Her eyes drifting to the tub again, a fair amount of people ushered away for her to get a somewhat clear view of it now.
Dry lips forming an unsubtle O, she whispered, "Wow."
There wasn't much to see with whatever it was being submerged at the bottom, but the striking tail that had flopped out earlier continued flapping back and forth despite the strength of four, grown men holding it hostage.
Three men going to secure the mid-section, visibly cringing as their hands sunk deeper into the water to confront what was inside, the remaining men were at the head of the tub trying to keep it from coming out.
Fleeting seconds were swallowed before they came to the conclusion that they weren't strong enough to prolong the tirade. With frantic glances thrown and the beckon for more people to come help, they were growing in panic.
As soon as an unfortunate member repositioned a clammy hand, the creature lurched for its head to momentarily bob out of the water, and her mouth unabashedly dropped.
Silky strands of steel tinted hair falling over the wooden rim in tendrils as it lifted further up to tease - or test - the strength of the humans growling above it, its face came to visual formation.
She forgot to breathe. Soft gasps sounding from all areas of the room, busy chatter died when multiple sets of eyes pinned in on the difference in atmosphere.
It looked like a person... A man?
To the chagrin of the men, the person-thing yanked its limbs free to brace a hand on each side of the container to sit up. Water droplets pelting onto a toned neck and sinking into the crevices of prominent collarbones, they finished their journey down a strong chest and defined abdomen.
Lara stopped ogling for a brief second to notice the muscles lingering the length of its arms were straining like it was struggling to focus all of its energy on that exclusive task.
Sympathy punching her in the stomach, what monstrosities did these workers accomplish weakening the creature to this extent. Did they feel proud to be domineering and cruel? Was that the goal?
The men around it leered in distrust, but didn't move to do anything. Foremost, they watched and analyzed for the potential of harm. Head pointed towards a wall no one occupied, as if to purposely ignore the people in the room, those same, steel strands of hair now rested flush against its face and comfortably at a jaw line.
"Oh, he's hot," somewhere, a woman purred.
Lara couldn't make out much more from here; she was simply too far away. However, she and everyone took heed when the creature appeared to collect himself with a deep inhale before he started to tediously scan the area. All the while, eyelashes fluttered over rabidly moving lids in an effort to adjust his eyes to the light and each, unfamiliar face.
Observing scrunched brows mangled in confusion, full lips adhered to an obscured frown as a straight, slightly upturned nose twitched as though to insinuate the smell in the room somehow offended him.
When he ran a look over her section of the crowd, her limbs congealed. Regardless if he had roamed everyone else in the same manner he was now looking at her, nothing could prevent the hitch of breath in her lungs as hues of intermittent grey bore into starstruck hazel. It didn't last but a millisecond, but it was an adequate exchange that helped her catch the sliver of anger, frustration and fear that danced along his irises.
His attention on the room severed when a man moved, the startled creature responded by pulling its mouth back to reveal the sharpest canines Lara had ever seen. When the men started to prod him back into the tub, his jaw clenched, accentuating how strong his bite would probably be.
Visualizing the flesh tearing teeth that likely sat behind it, a reluctant tremor broke her form. Her spine crawling in an effort to sooth rising goosebumps, it couldn't be denied. This creature was absolutely -
"Breathtaking," she softly voiced. It was too noisy for anyone to have caught her astonished affirmation. Yet, whether she was hallucinating things or not, she could have sworn she saw the creature's ear twitch.
A voice slicing the tension, a man hollered, "We've got the net!"
Lara was shoved off to the side when a heavy-footed worker clumsily sprinted past her and towards the relieved looking men.
Deciding she had seen enough of the show, she bolted.
After a week, news spread like lightening through the facility that an exotic, human-like mammal had been discovered. Unbelievably so, a merman. That day overwhelmed with laughter, Lara couldn't find the frame of mind to be amused.
Research was still in progress on whether more of his kind existed. It was slow and monotonous, but for now, he was to be kept indefinitely. Pity increasing every day she partook in caring for this peculiar captive labeled as Beta-507, it felt plain wrong to be involved in any way.
He had to be contained in a specialized tank structured for weeks to his particular needs and strengths. Appearing to have human-level intelligence, if not greater by his recognition - and avid dislike - of captivity, originally, everyone assumed the orca enclosure to be more than sufficient to contain him until they realized they had tragically underestimated him based on the mere fact he looked part human. The orcas displaying discomfort at his presence, they reevaluated the synopsis entirely.
Now here, in this medieval contraption of steel and continuous security, he resided. Lara, being one of several entrusted with his care, was never allowed a break. Given the run around by the creature himself, he made it a habitual point to infuriate her.
Things ranging from slamming his tail on a wall to underwater plants and objects being uprooted and shredded, right to his playing games with the workers, he didn't know how to chill. Even to the extent a man was almost crushed by a boulder after falling in by mistake.
She wasn't anyone, really. Especially someone of value to the situation. She was just a volunteer thrust a timetable and told to look after him on her night shift. Her designated duties were to feed and alert superiors to any strange activity he might exhibit, be it new information or possible illness.
In all honesty, it was comical how it worked out. She would probably be the last person chosen if it weren't for her previously taking on the ten to six graveyard shift. The remaining, couple of people who also undertook those hours were primarily lab workers, and thus busied themselves with other things.
So in essence, they sort of had no choice but to trust her with him every night.
A scanty wish, she'd like to think her and the fish-human had bonded in that harrowing time. Yet, besides her throwing in his specialized meat - which was still up for serious debate - to his frequent tantrums, she was a mere nuisance to the male. Palpable in his obnoxious dismissal of her after his three-course meal time.
However, she wouldn't deny the excitement that sometimes crept in on the rare moments he would let her get a glimpse of him, since he often hid in the center of the vast enclosure. Extravagant in itself being embellished with plants, rock, scattered gravel and sand, algae clung to specific places while the occasional fish scattered by.
They had this funny concept that it would make him feel more at home. No one even knew where his home was, she highly doubted swimming around with guppies would make him less lonely.
She openly scoffed.
Her heart skipping at the patter of noise, she suspiciously eyed the tank. Nonetheless, she chose to ignore it. Rolling out the kinks in her neck, she loosened an elongated yawn.
"I'm spending way too much time here," she groaned and heaved a forgotten bucket of gourmet meat up in her arms.
Not a soul figured his whereabouts, why creatures like him exist, how many like him exist, or if he spoke at all. Let alone understood their language. For what it was worth, he spoke some type of whale... or dolphin.
Lowly, she snickered. "Dolphin."
Abruptly, out of nowhere, two hands slammed on the glass to the front of her. Jerking from reverie, Lara swiftly gave attention to the lean, masculine figure shadowing hers in the midst of wavering tides. Stone cold grey chipping at her self-esteem, the impact behind the emotionless appraisal hit all the wrong spots of her consciousness.
"You shouldn't try to look innocent," she grumbled with a shuffle of the bucket. Her head had already subconsciously lowered to stare into the contents of the container rather than him.
Anywhere but him.
Lara kicked a dust bunny out of the way and started for the panel where she would throw in his food as per usual, thinking that's what he was getting antsy for. He simply watched her feet trail. Absently, she wondered why he wasn't following, but let it be as a blessing in disguise.
Halted at a small, square door embedded into the tank, she moved the bucket for better access. Every employee was required to enter a pass code to open the seal and then again to open the other side of its two-chambered compartment. Once she did just that, she watched the meat float off to another area beyond what the human eye could see.
Looking to where Beta-507 had been to find him gone, her gaze fell to a section nearby upon a change in the water's wafting.
Lounging on a shipwreck decoration some idiot thought would be cute to put in, his fingers tenderly pressed to the wooden steering. Eyes sullen and half-lidded, long lashes carved over pearlescent skin. Staring down at its design, there was no visible expression intact.
What was he thinking?
She wanted to stay, an impulse told her to sit and unravel him while she had the opportunity. But she knew that she wouldn't be welcomed.
Waiting for him to notice the food, her eyes snuck to the lower half of his body. More lean muscle traveling underneath iridescent scales, they wound meticulous patterns flourished at the end in a wide fluke. Harboring markings she dreamed a day to trace, she was still astonished that mermaids and mermen existed. Still digesting it.
He didn't spend long in his thoughts after catching on to her through a feeling that he was being scrutinized. Pupils rapidly dilating to consume the shades in his irises, he snapped around and swam deeper to the center.
Pausing, she almost wanted to laugh at this regular occurrence. "I think he sneered at me."